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Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow


By Keith Bradsher and David Barboza
The New York Times
June 11, 2006


One of China's lesser-known exports is a dangerous brew
of soot, toxic chemicals and climate-changing gases from
the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants.

In early April, a dense cloud of pollutants over
Northern China sailed to nearby Seoul, sweeping along
dust and desert sand before wafting across the Pacific.
An American satellite spotted the cloud as it crossed
the West Coast.

Researchers in California, Oregon and Washington noticed
specks of sulfur compounds, carbon and other byproducts
of coal combustion coating the silvery surfaces of their
mountaintop detectors. These microscopic particles can
work their way deep into the lungs, contributing to
respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer.

Filters near Lake Tahoe in the mountains of eastern
California "are the darkest that we've seen" outside
smoggy urban areas, said Steven S. Cliff, an atmospheric
scientist at the University of California at Davis.

Unless China finds a way to clean up its coal plants and
the thousands of factories that burn coal, pollution
will soar both at home and abroad. The increase in
global-warming gases from China's coal use will probably
exceed that for all industrialized countries combined
over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the
reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol
seeks.

The sulfur dioxide produced in coal combustion poses an
immediate threat to the health of China's citizens,
contributing to about 400,000 premature deaths a year.
It also causes acid rain that poisons lakes, rivers,
forests and crops.

The sulfur pollution is so pervasive as to have an
extraordinary side effect that is helping the rest of
the world, but only temporarily: It actually slows
global warming. The tiny, airborne particles deflect the
sun's hot rays back into space.

But the cooling effect from sulfur is short-lived. By
contrast, the carbon dioxide emanating from Chinese coal
plants will last for decades, with a cumulative warming
effect that will eventually overwhelm the cooling from
sulfur and deliver another large kick to global warming,
climate scientists say. A warmer climate could lead to
rising sea levels, the spread of tropical diseases in
previously temperate climes, crop failures in some
regions and the extinction of many plant and animal
species, especially those in polar or alpine areas.

Coal is indeed China's double-edged sword the new
economy's black gold and the fragile environment's dark
cloud.

Already, China uses more coal than the United States,
the European Union and Japan combined. And it has
increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the
past two years in the broadest industrialization ever.
Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant
opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all
the households in Dallas or San Diego.

To make matters worse, India is right behind China in
stepping up its construction of coal-fired power plants
and has a population expected to outstrip China's by
2030.

Aware of the country's growing reliance on coal and of
the dangers from burning so much of it, China's leaders
have vowed to improve the nation's energy efficiency. No
one thinks that effort will be enough. To make a big
improvement in emissions of global-warming gases and
other pollutants, the country must install the most
modern equipment equipment that for the time being
must come from other nations.

Industrialized countries could help by providing loans
or grants, as the Japanese government and the World Bank
have done, or by sharing technology. But Chinese
utilities have in the past preferred to buy cheap but
often-antiquated equipment from well connected domestic
suppliers instead of importing costlier gear from the
West.

The Chinese government has been reluctant to approve the
extra spending. Asking customers to shoulder the bill
would set back the government's efforts to protect
consumers from inflation and to create jobs and social
stability.

But each year China defers buying advanced technology,
older equipment goes into scores of new coal-fired
plants with a lifespan of up to 75 years.

"This is the great challenge they have to face," said
David Moskovitz, an energy consultant who advises the
Chinese government. "How can they continue their rapid
growth without plunging the environment into the abyss?"

Living Better With Coal

Wu Yiebing and his wife, Cao Waiping, used to have very
little effect on their environment. But they have tasted
the rising standard of living from coal-generated
electricity and they are hooked, even as they suffer the
vivid effects of the damage their new lifestyle creates.

Years ago, the mountain village where they grew up had
electricity for only several hours each evening, when
water was let out of a nearby dam to turn a small
turbine. They lived in a mud hut, farmed by hand from
dawn to dusk on hillside terraces too small for
tractors, and ate almost nothing but rice on an income
of $25 a month.

Today, they live here in Hanjing, a small town in
central China where Mr. Wu earns nearly $200 a month. He
operates a large electric drill 600 feet underground in
a coal mine, digging out the fuel that has powered his
own family's advancement. He and his wife have a stereo,
a refrigerator, a television, an electric fan, a phone
and light bulbs, paying just $2.50 a month for all the
electricity they can burn from a nearby coal-fired power
plant.

They occupy a snug house with brick walls and floors and
a cement foundation the bricks and cement are products
of the smoking, energy-ravenous factories that dot the
valley. Ms. Cao decorates the family's home with
calendar pictures of Zhang Ziyi, the Chinese film star.
She is occasionally dismissive about the farming village
where she lived as a girl and now seldom visits except
over Chinese New Year.

"We couldn't wear high heels then because the paths were
so bad and we were always carrying heavy loads," said
Ms. Cao, who was wearing makeup, a stylish yellow
pullover, low-slung black pants and black pumps with
slender three-inch heels on a recent Sunday morning.

One-fifth of the world's population already lives in
affluent countries with lots of air-conditioning,
refrigerators and other appliances. This group consumes
a tremendous amount of oil, natural gas, nuclear power,
coal and alternative energy sources.

Now China is trying to bring its fifth of the world's
population, people like Mr. Wu and Ms. Cao, up to the
same standard. One goal is to build urban communities
for 300 million people over the next two decades.

Already, China has more than tripled the number of
air-conditioners in the past five years, to 84 per 100
urban households. And it has brought modern appliances
to hundreds of millions of households in small towns and
villages like Hanjing.

The difference from most wealthy countries is that China
depends overwhelmingly on coal. And using coal to
produce electricity and run factories generates more
global-warming gases and lung-damaging pollutants than
relying on oil or gas.

Indeed, the Wu family dislikes the light gray smog of
sulfur particles and other pollutants that darkens the
sky and dulls the dark green fields of young wheat and
the white blossoms of peach orchards in the distance.
But they tolerate the pollution.

"Everything else is better here," Mr. Wu said. "Now we
live better, we eat better."

China's Dark Clouds

Large areas of North-Central China have been devastated
by the spectacular growth of the local coal industry.
Severe pollution extends across Shaanxi Province, where
the Wus live, and neighboring Shanxi Province, which
produces even more coal.

Not long ago, in the historic city of Datong, about 160
miles west of Beijing, throngs of children in colorful
outfits formed a ceremonial line at the entrance to the
city's 1,500-year-old complex of Buddhist cave grottoes
to celebrate Datong's new designation as one of China's
"spiritually civilized cities."

The event was meant to bolster pride in a city
desperately in need of good news. Two years ago, Datong,
long the nation's coal capital, was branded one of the
world's most-polluted cities. Since then, the air
quality has only grown worse.

Datong is so bad that last winter the city's air quality
monitors went on red alert. Desert dust and particulate
matter in the city had been known to force the pollution
index into warning territory, above 300, which means
people should stay indoors.

On Dec. 28, the index hit 350.

"The pollution is worst during the winter," said Ji
Youping, a former coal miner who now works with a local
environmental protection agency. "Datong gets very
black. Even during the daytime, people drive with their
lights on."

Of China's 10 most polluted cities, four, including
Datong, are in Shanxi Province. The coal-mining
operations have damaged waterways and scarred the land.
Because of intense underground mining, thousands of
acres are prone to sinking, and hundreds of villages are
blackened with coal waste.

There is a Dickensian feel to much of the region. Roads
are covered in coal tar; houses are coated with soot;
miners, their faces smeared almost entirely black, haul
carts full of coal rocks; the air is thick with the
smell of burning coal.

There are growing concerns about the impact of this coal
boom on the environment. The Asian Development Bank says
it is financing pollution control programs in Shanxi
because the number of people suffering from lung cancer
and other respiratory diseases in the province has
soared over the past 20 years. Yet even after years of
government-mandated cleanup efforts the region's
factories belch black smoke.

The government has promised to close the foulest
factories and to shutter thousands of illegal mines,
where some of the worst safety and environmental hazards
are concentrated. But no one is talking about shutting
the region's coal-burning power plants, which account
for more than half the pollution. In fact, Shanxi and
Shaanxi are rapidly building new coal-fired plants to
keep pace with soaring energy demand.

To meet that demand, which includes burning coal to
supply power to Beijing, Shanxi Province alone is
expected to produce almost as much coal as was mined
last year in Germany, England and Russia combined.

Burning all that coal releases enormous quantities of
sulfur.

"Sulfur dioxide is China's No. 1 pollution problem,"
said Barbara A. Finamore, a senior attorney at the
Natural Resources Defense Council's China Clean Energy
Program in Washington. "This is the most serious acid
rain problem in the world."

China released about 22.5 million tons of sulfur in
2004, more than twice the amount released in the United
States, and a Chinese regulator publicly estimated last
autumn that emissions would reach 26 million tons for
2005, although no official figures have been released
yet. Acid rain now falls on 30 percent of China.

Studies have found that the worst effects of acid rain
and other pollution occur within several hundred miles
of a power plant, where the extra acidity of rainfall
can poison crops, trees and lakes alike.

But China is generating such enormous quantities of
pollution that the effects are felt farther downwind
than usual. Sulfur and ash that make breathing a hazard
are being carried by the wind to South Korea, Japan and
beyond.

Not enough of the Chinese emissions reach the United
States to have an appreciable effect on acid rain yet.
But, they are already having an effect in the mountains
in West Coast states. These particles are dense enough
that, at maximum levels during the spring, they account
at higher altitudes for a fifth or more of the maximum
levels of particles allowed by the latest federal air
quality standards. Over the course of a year, Chinese
pollution averages 10 to 15 percent of allowable levels
of particles. The amounts are smaller for lower-lying
cities, like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

China is also the world's largest emitter of mercury,
which has been linked to fetal and child development
problems, said Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at
the University of Washington.

Unless Chinese regulators become much more aggressive
over the next few years, considerably more emissions
could reach the United States. Chinese pollution is
already starting to make it harder and more expensive
for West Coast cities to meet stringent air quality
standards, said Professor Cliff of the University of
California, slowing four decades of progress toward
cleaner air.

Nothing Beats It

China knows it has to do something about its dependence
on coal.

The government has set one of the world's most ambitious
targets for energy conservation: to cut the average
amount of energy needed to produce each good or service
by 20 percent over the next five years. But with an
economy growing 10 percent a year and with energy
consumption climbing even faster, a conservation target
amounting to 3.7 percent a year does not keep pace.

All new cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles sold
in China starting July 1 will have to meet fuel-economy
standards stricter than those in the United States. New
construction codes encourage the use of double-glazed
windows to reduce air-conditioning and heating costs and
high-tech light bulbs that produce more light with fewer
watts.

Meanwhile, other sources of energy have problems. Oil is
at about $70 a barrel. Natural gas is in short supply in
most of China, and prices for imports of liquefied
natural gas have more than doubled in the last three
years. Environmental objections are slowing the
construction of hydroelectric dams on China's few
untamed rivers. Long construction times for nuclear
power plants make them a poor solution to addressing
blackouts and other power shortages now.

For the past three years, China has also been trying
harder to develop other alternatives. State-owned power
companies have been building enormous wind turbines up
and down the coast. Chinese companies are also trying to
develop geothermal energy, tapping the heat of
underground rocks, and are researching solar power and
ways to turn coal into diesel fuel. But all of these
measures fall well short. Coal remains the obvious
choice to continue supplying almost two-thirds of
China's energy needs.

Choices and Consequences

China must make some difficult choices. So far, the
nation has been making decisions that it hopes will
lessen the health-damaging impact on its own country
while sustaining economic growth as cheaply as possible.
But those decisions will also add to the emissions that
contribute to global warming.

The first big choice involves tackling sulfur dioxide.
The government is now requiring that the smokestacks of
all new coal-fired plants be fitted with devices long
used in Western power plants to remove up to 95 percent
of the sulfur. All existing coal-fired plants in China
are supposed to have the devices installed by 2010.

While acknowledging that they have missed deadlines,
Chinese officials insist they have the capacity now to
install sulfur filters on every power plant smokestack.
"I don't think there will be a problem reaching this
target before 2010," said Liu Deyou, chief engineer at
the Beijing SPC Environment Protection Tech Engineering
Company, the sulfur-filter manufacturing arm of one of
the five big, state-owned utilities.

Japan may be 1,000 miles east of Shanxi Province, but
the Japanese government is so concerned about acid rain
from China that it has agreed to lend $125 million to
Shanxi. The money will help pay for desulfurization
equipment for large, coal-fired steel plants in the
provincial capital, Taiyuan.

The question is how much the state-owned power companies
will actually use the pollution control equipment once
it is installed. The equipment is costly to maintain and
uses enormous amounts of electricity that could instead
be sold to consumers. Moreover, regulated electricity
tariffs offer little reward for them to run the
equipment.

In 2002, the Chinese government vowed to cut sulfur
emissions by 10 percent by 2005. Instead, they rose 27
percent. If Chinese officials act swiftly, sulfur
emissions could be halved in the next couple of decades,
power officials and academic experts say. But if China
continues to do little, sulfur emissions could double,
creating even more devastating health and environmental
problems.

Even so, halving sulfur emissions has its own
consequences: it would make global warming noticeable
sooner.

China contributes one-sixth of the world's sulfur
pollution. Together with the emissions from various
other countries, those from China seem to offset more
than one-third of the warming effect from manmade carbon
dioxide already in the atmosphere, according to several
climate models.

But the sulfur particles typically drift to the ground
in a week and stop reflecting much sunlight. Recent
research suggests that it takes up to 10 years before a
new coal-fired power plant has poured enough
long-lasting carbon dioxide into the air to offset the
cooling effect of the plant's weekly sulfur emissions.

Climate experts say that, ideally, China would cut
emissions of sulfur and carbon dioxide at the same time.
But they understand China's imperative to clean up
sulfur more quickly because it has a far more immediate
effect on health.

"It's sort of unethical to expect people not to clean up
their air quality for the sake of the climate," said
Tami Bond, an atmospheric scientist at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Hunt for Efficiency

The second big decision facing China lies in how
efficiently the heat from burning coal is converted into
electricity. The latest big power plants in Western
countries are much more efficient. Their coal-heated
steam at very high temperatures and pressures can
generate 20 to 50 percent more kilowatts than older
Chinese power plants, even as they eject the same
carbon-dioxide emissions and potentially lower sulfur
emissions.

China has limited the construction of small power
plants, which are inefficient, and has required the use
of somewhat higher steam temperatures and pressures. But
Chinese officials say few new plants use the highest
temperatures and pressures, which require costly
imported equipment.

And Chinese power utilities are facing a squeeze. The
government has kept electricity cheap, by international
standards, to keep consumers happy. But this has made it
hard for utilities to cover their costs, especially as
world coal prices rise.

The government has tried to help by limiting what mines
can charge utilities for coal. Mines have responded by
shipping the lowest-quality, dirtiest, most-contaminated
coal to power plants, say power and coal executives. The
utilities have also been reluctant to spend on foreign
equipment, steering contracts to affiliates instead.

"When you have a 1 percent or less profit," said Harley
Seyedin, chief executive of the First Washington Group,
owner of oil-fired power plants in Southeastern China's
Guangdong Province, "you don't have the cash flow to
invest or to expand in a reasonable way."

A New Technology

The third big choice involves whether to pulverize coal
and then burn the powder, as is done now, or convert the
coal into a gas and then burn the gas, in a process
known as integrated gasification combined combustion, or
I.G.C.C.

One advantage of this approach is that coal contaminants
like mercury and sulfur can be easily filtered from the
gas and disposed. Another advantage is that carbon
dioxide can be separated from the emissions and pumped
underground, although this technology remains unproven.

Leading climate scientists like this approach to dealing
with China's rising coal consumption. "There's a whole
range of things that can be done; we should try to
deploy coal gasification," said Dr. Rajendra K.
Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations-affiliated
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The World Bank in 2003 offered a $15 million grant from
the Global Environment Facility to help China build its
first state-of-the-art power plant to convert coal into
a gas before burning it. The plan called for pumping
combustion byproducts from the plant underground.

But the Chinese government put the plan on hold after
bids to build the plant were higher than expected.
Chinese officials have expressed an interest this spring
in building five or six power plants with the new
technology instead of just one. But they are in danger
of losing the original grant if they do not take some
action soon, said Zhao Jian-ping, the senior energy
specialist in the Beijing office of the World Bank.

Another stumbling block has been that China wants
foreign manufacturers to transfer technological secrets
to Chinese rivals, instead of simply filling orders to
import equipment, said Anil Terway, director of the East
Asia energy division at the Asian Development Bank.

"The fact that they are keen to have the technologies
along with the equipment is slowing things down," he
said.

Andy Solem, vice president for China infrastructure at
General Electric, a leading manufacturer of coal
gasification equipment, said he believed that China
would place orders in 2007 or 2008 for the construction
of a series of these plants. But he said some technology
transfer was unavoidable.

Western companies could help Chinese businesses take
steps to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, like
subsidizing the purchase of more efficient boilers. Some
companies already have such programs in other countries,
to offset the environmental consequences of their own
carbon-dioxide emissions at home, and are looking at
similar projects in China. But the scale of emissions in
China to offset is enormous.

For all the worries about pollution from China,
international climate experts are loath to criticize the
country without pointing out that the average American
still consumes more energy and is responsible for the
release of 10 times as much carbon dioxide as the
average Chinese. While China now generates more
electricity from coal than does the United States,
America's consumption of gasoline dwarfs China's, and
burning gasoline also releases carbon dioxide.

An Insatiable Demand?

The Chinese are still far from achieving what has become
the basic standard in the West. Urban elites who can
afford condominiums are still a tiny fraction of China's
population. But these urban elites are role models with
a lifestyle sought by hundreds of millions of Chinese.
Plush condos on sale in Shanghai are just a step toward
an Americanized lifestyle that is becoming possible in
the nation's showcase city.

Far from the Wu family in rural Shaanxi, the Lu Bei
family grew up in cramped, one-room apartments in
Shanghai. Now the couple own a large three-bedroom
apartment in the city's futuristic Pudong financial
district. They have two television sets, four
air-conditioners, a microwave, a dishwasher, a washing
machine and three computers. They also have high-speed
Internet access.

"This is my bedroom," said Lu Bei, a 35-year-old
insurance agency worker entering a spacious room with a
king-size bed. "We moved here two years ago. We had a
baby and wanted a decent place to live."

For millions of Chinese to live like the Lus with less
damage to the environment, energy conservation is
crucial. But curbing that usage would be impossible as
long as China keeps energy prices low. Gasoline still
costs $2 a gallon, for example, and electricity is
similarly cheap for many users.

With Chinese leaders under constant pressure to create
jobs for the millions of workers flooding from farms
into cities each year, as well as the rapidly growing
ranks of college graduates, there has been little
enthusiasm for a change of strategy.

Indeed, China is using subsidies to make its energy even
cheaper, a strategy that is not unfamiliar to Americans,
said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at the
University of Michigan. "They have done in many ways,"
he said, "what we have done."

 

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